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Meinhardt Raabe, Famous Munchkin, Is Dead at 94

Just a couple of weeks ago, we lost the world’s smallest dwarf…sad times.

As coroner, I must aver
I thoroughly examined her.
And she’s not only merely dead,
She’s really most sincerely dead.

from – When Meinhardt Raabe, an unknown 23-year-old from Wisconsin, sang those lines in his first and only Hollywood feature film, he little suspected that they would shape the course of his life for the next seven decades.

The lines, of course, belong to the Munchkin coroner in the classic 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz.” Mr. Raabe’s brief appearance in the film — about 13 seconds of uncredited screen time — made him an internationally recognized pop-cultural figure, if not precisely a household name.

Mr. Raabe, who was also a wartime aviator and the first Little Oscar, the mascot of the Oscar Mayer meat company, died Friday in Orange Park, Fla., at 94. Bob Rigel, president of the Penney Retirement Community in Penney Farms, Fla., where Mr. Raabe had lived since 1986, said that the cause had not been officially determined but that it was presumed to be a heart attack.

At his death, Mr. Raabe was one of a handful of surviving Munchkins from the film.

With his high-collared indigo cloak and curly brimmed hat, Mr. Raabe’s character was known to generations of moviegoers for his official proclamation, sung in warbling tones as he unfurled an outsize death certificate: The Wicked Witch of the East was dead, the victim of blunt force trauma from an errant Kansas farmhouse.

At four feet, Mr. Raabe (pronounced Robby) was among the taller little people, or midgets as they were then known, hired for the film’s Munchkinland scenes. Though more than 100 Munchkins appeared on screen, his role was one of just a few with dialogue — lines he obligingly repeated, month in and month out, for the next 70 years as a motivational speaker before school groups, Rotary Clubs and Oz conventions.

Meinhardt Raabe was born on Sept. 2, 1915, in Watertown, Wis. Though he never surpassed 4 feet 7 inches at his tallest (he continued to grow till he was in his 30s), he did not hear the word “dwarf,” or even “midget,” until he was a young adult. No one in his community had seen a person with dwarfism before. Growing up, he later said, he assumed there was no one else in the world like him.

That changed in 1933, when the young Mr. Raabe visited the Midget Village at the Chicago World’s Fair. There before his eyes was a world of men and women just like him. Thrilled, he took a job as a barker there the next summer.

Mr. Raabe received a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1937, and an M.B.A. from Drexel University in Philadelphia in 1970. A skilled aviator, he served stateside in the Civil Air Patrol in World War II, by all accounts the smallest pilot in uniform.

On graduating from Wisconsin, Mr. Raabe was turned down for one corporate job after another. As he recalled in his autobiography, “Memories of a Munchkin” (Back Stage Books, 2005; with Daniel Kinske), one recruiter told him he belonged in a carnival.

He eventually joined Oscar Mayer as a salesman. After the company made him Little Oscar, “the World’s Smallest Chef,” he spent nearly 30 years touring the country in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, promoting the company’s wares.

In late 1938, after Mr. Raabe heard that Hollywood was hiring midgets for a film, he took a leave from his job and boarded a train west. At MGM, he found his excellent diction, honed in his work as a barker and a meat salesman, stood him in good stead: he won the part of the coroner in “The Wizard of Oz.” Though he wrote in his memoir that he came to believe his lines in the finished film (and those of all the other Munchkins) were dubbed, Mr. Raabe remained a fan of “The Wizard of Oz” to the end of his life.

Mr. Raabe’s wife, the former Marie Hartline, who spent her youth touring with a midget vaudeville act, died in 1997. He is survived by a sister, Marion Ziegelmann, of Watertown, Wis.

In 2007, Mr. Raabe was on hand when a star collectively honoring the Munchkins was unveiled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.


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